‘The Long Song’ at Chichester Festival Theatre is Evocative, Powerful Storytelling

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Image Credit: Manuel Harlan

★★★★

Andrea Levy’s powerful novel about the life of a woman in plantation-era Jamaica is transported to the stage in Chichester Festival Theatre’s new adaptation. Suhayla El-Bushra’s brings Levy’s work to life in a way that feels both personal and moving, while raising important questions of the depiction of black trauma in art.

When telling a story that spans decades, it can be difficult to know how best to frame it. The Long Song takes the method of the old Miss July (Llewella Gideon) recounting her youth to her son Thomas (Syrus Lowe). In doing so, it plays with the concept of the narrator. At various points throughout the play, July will recount an event, only to have other members of the ensemble chip in to remind her that this isn’t the true version of events. This adds a playfulness between characters, especially when the old July is as feisty and biting as she is. However, it also weaves through an interesting thematic thread about how we choose to remember our past.

As July tells the story, we journey from the tale of her birth, to being taken away as a child to be a servant to Mrs Caroline Mortimer (Olivia Poulton), to her unconventional ‘marriage’ to plantation overseer Robert Goodwin (Leonard Buckley). Each chapter is given ample time, with the overall product feeling incredibly well-paced. The transitions between the sets for these sequences remain fairly simple. The fields of the plantation stand tall across the back of the stage, whilst a table and chairs occasionally appear to signify a change in location. This never felt empty, but aided by a gorgeous score by Michael Henry, transports you enough to fully engage you in this time period and world.

The simplicity of the staging also allows for a greater focus on the performances, which are truly captivating. Tara Tijani, straight out of drama school, brings a strength and resilience to July, whilst never losing a bright-eyed wonder for life, even in the worst of it. Leonard Buckley and Olivia Poulton manage to balance a sort of bumbling presence, with an authority that is chilling as their views digress. It’s something so brilliant about the writing, that moments of humour and joy never feel out of place, but seek to show a rounded view of life back then, not just simplifying the experience of slaves to that sole element of their life. The same can be said for the writing of the white characters, such as the aforementioned Robert Goodwin and Caroline; they aren’t written to exaggerate their villainy, but are also portrayed as fleshed-out human beings with equally rounded lives.

This is the show’s greatest strength, its personal, authentically human-centred storytelling. It never sensationalises anything: neither the violence shown towards the slaves, or the sexual aspect of the relationship between July and Robert. The worst we see in terms of violence is the occasional hand raised, with everything else being implied rather than shown explicitly. In ways, this choice mutes the emotions of the piece. However, it highlights a question that is so often discussed when it comes to black media—what needs to be shown and what is just trauma porn? It is only fitting then, that the show ends by audibly asking this question, as July asks who would it help for her to share all the darker aspects of her story? Who needs to hear the dirty, gruelling, details of her suffering?

The Long Song packs a punch, not in its shock factor, but in its tender humanity. It’s all the more interesting and powerful for it.

Words by Rehana Nurmahi

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